Homily, All Saints 2021 (Nov. 7)

The promise isn’t that there will be no loss. It’s that what is lost will one day be restored.

The promise isn’t that there will be no tears. It’s that the tears will be tenderly wiped away.

The promise isn’t that there will be no death. It’s that even though we die, we live. 

And no, I don’t know what that means. Nobody on this side of the veil does. 

All Saints is a feast day that brings together a lot of things. Remembering and giving thanks for the saints who, in their time and place, have helped God’s light shine out, all those we have called to stand beside us, and so many more.  

It means holding the memory of our own beloved dead – those who may not be named by the church or remembered beyond their dearest ones, but who, because we knew them, changed us for good.

And it means celebrating that we, too, are God’s faithful ones, chosen and called, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, set apart to live lives oriented towards God’s purposes on earth. 

 Our three-year cycle of readings points us towards different aspects of all this, each year.This year’s readings invite us to pause and grieve, in hope. 

Let me confess that I’ve taken a liberty with our Gospel text today. What is actually on the calendar is the next part of this story. Martha’s sister Mary comes to Jesus; she greets him the same way Martha did: “‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” She is weeping and the others gathered there are weeping and Jesus starts to weep too. Then he goes to the tomb where Lazarus is laid, and he raises him from the dead. 

It’s a powerful and important story. But this part – Jesus’ dialogue with Martha – is more reflective of our experiences of loss. For that reason, it’s often used as a text at funerals. 

Like Martha, we might reproach God: Surely, if you had been here – beside this hospital bed, on this dark road, in this lonely room – my loved one would not have died.

Like Martha, we hope to see our loved ones again one day – what the Rite I funeral service calls “a reasonable and holy hope” – but that Last Day seems too distant to offer much immediate comfort. 

Like Martha – like Job! – we try to find some kind of grounding in a conviction that, whatever else happens, God is God. 

Martha’s brother is restored to her, mere moments later. That’s not how it usually happens. 

We lose someone – or something: possibilities, precious things, beloved places. And we grieve. We ache. We rage. Sometimes we go numb. 

Today our All Saints texts tell us: God sees. God hears. God weeps with us. And that the new reality that is slowly and mysteriously being born, under and behind and within our reality – in God’s new world, promised in our Isaiah and Revelation texts, written nearly a thousand years apart – Death will be no more. There will be an end to grief, to loss. A loving God will wipe away all our tears. 

In the meantime, tough: how do we live in this reality? Where not to love seems intolerably lonely –  but to love means the inevitability of loss? 

In the Marvel TV series Wandavision, a character speaks to another character, who is grieving deep losses, and says: What is grief but love persevering? 

What is grief but love persevering? A beautiful line just asking to be quoted in a sermon. But I’m sure that many in grief, if there were a switch to flip to turn off that love when the beloved is gone, would consider it. Just to ease the ache of absence. 

But there is no switch. We were made for love, and so we were made for grief. 

At our clergy retreat last week we were invited to spend some time with a poem. The one that spoke to me was by Rainer Maria Rilke. It imagines the words God speaks to each soul just before it begins its life on earth – including this: 

Let everything happen to you: the beautiful and the terrifying.

One must just keep going. No feeling is final. 

Don’t let yourself lose Me. 

In my favorite Barbara Kingsolver novel, Animal Dreams, there’s a quotation that I think of pretty often – You can’t just replace people you love with other people. But you can trust that there will keep on being people to love.  

The promise isn’t that love will always be easy. It’s that love is never wasted. 

The promise isn’t that there will be no loss. It’s that what is lost will one day be restored.

The promise isn’t that there will be no tears. It’s that – someday, somehow, somewhere – our tears will be tenderly wiped away, by a God who knows our hearts and holds all our sorrows in the same loving hands that framed the universe.